Posted on 12/6/2013

Lying flat on my back in my physical therapist’s office was one of the most refreshing experiences of the day. Physical therapists have a knack for propping you up in all the right places to provide just the support an aching body needs. In my particular case, I was in need of some relief from neck pain. I chose to blame my pain on my years of pole vaulting as a younger man—every vaulter I knew had some kind of neck or back problem—but I realized that the source of my discomfort could just as easily have been simple age. Getting old kind of sucks.

I laid there while my therapist massaged and rotated and prodded and pulled and iced, and it wasn’t long after my breathing had become slow and regular that he decided to ask me what I thought about the recent news of the settlement the NFL had reached with the class-action lawsuit brought on behalf of a bunch of former players. The players had claimed that the NFL had ignored years’ worth of evidence concerning the long-term consequences of large men running into each other with their heads. As one physician put it, it turns out that getting tackled by an NFL linebacker is equivalent to being in a head-on car crash, in terms of what the impact can do to your brain.

“So, I was listening to The Sports Animal this morning,” he began. That is a popular radio program that he, and many people around the state, tune in to on a semi-religious basis. “One of the commentators complained that with this settlement by the NFL, the rules will change in professional football to ‘make things safer,’ which will mean that college football will probably change as well, and that will result in rules changes in high-school and even pee-wee football all around the country … and before you know it, football will have become ‘sissified.’ What do you think about that, Dr. Brown?”

I suspect my therapist had some idea what I might think about that, based on many prior conversations about what I study, and that he might have been looking for a little affirmation of what he thought about the commentator’s remarks. I was happy to oblige.

“‘Sissified,’ huh? So, this guy, whose job is to sit in a chair and talk into a microphone about other people who play a game for a living … a game that is pretty much the roughest game in the civilized world, one that regularly puts huge men in the hospital, from which those men typically retire in their 30s because their bodies can’t take any more abuse … ” I trailed off in a pregnant pause, for dramatic effect. “This guy is afraid that football will become a game for sissies? Really? I wonder if he’s like some of those coaches I’ve heard about who think it’s a good idea to have eighth-grade football players run into each other at top speed, head first, over and over, in order to toughen them up?”

“Exactly,” my therapist replied. I had apparently given the correct response to his question. He was feeling affirmed, and that’s always a good state of mind for someone who is manipulating your cerebral vertebrae.

He went on to recount his own horror stories from his high-school football days, stories of young players experiencing the after-effects of what we now would recognize as traumatic brain injuries. We now know that such injuries, even those classified as “mild,” accumulate over a person’s lifetime, the same way that small amounts of mercury ingested through polluted fish accumulate in the body, leading to chronic health problems when those levels get high enough. I was properly appalled at his stories, and at the reactions of his coaches and their little euphemisms for these concussive injuries. “Billy got his bell rung, didn’t he? Shake it off, boy, shake it off! Take five, and we’ll get you back on the field in no time.”

Yep, there’s no more manly response to traumatic brain injury than to shake it off. That’s what a concussed brain needs most, after all—more shaking.

This commentator’s ranting about football becoming “sissified” is a great example of what can happen when people steeped in the ideology of the honor syndrome are allowed to have a microphone. The honor syndrome, as we know, tells men to be brave and strong and tough. If you “get your bell rung,” you should shake it off. Don’t complain about it. Just get back on the field. It seems that a lot of former NFL players are beginning to think differently about the wisdom of this approach. Anyone really want to suggest that these guys are just being a bunch of sissies? Anyone willing to do that to their faces? I thought not.